In the book Roman Women, Melania the Saint is depicted through a chronological biography. The way she takes her beliefs of chastity, death, and wealth into her own hands differs greatly from the normality of her time. Melania is able to transform her life as a wealthy Roman aristocratic woman and become a more noble woman by giving away everything she owns for a life of poverty. Diogenes Laertius does not write his biography in the typical chorological way, but instead uses quotes and beliefs to help enforce the philosophy of the individual. Melania’s life story would have had a more powerful meaning had Diogenes Laertius written her biography in his style by emphasizing the key points of her life and lifestyle.
If Laertius had written Melania’s biography, he would first describe her mental status as male and not as female, since during her life she took the more authoritative role in her relationship with her husband. Throughout Melania’s life, she is able to control her religious life by taking the dominant role in marriage. Laertius also would make her biography strictly about her and only briefly about her parents to describe where she came from. For example, Laertius writes, “Heraclitus, son of Bloson or, according to some, of Heracon, was a native of Ephesus,” (Laertius 409). Laertius would not mention Melania’s spouse Pinian, since his role in her life was not critical. This would help focus the attention strictly on Melania. In Laertius’s writings of other philosophers, he never to ever mentions a philosopher’s spouse. In this case, Melania would be considered the philosopher. Giardina writes, “Basically, the husband was viewed as an authoritative father, governing his wife as an eternal child in need of reassurance and guidance from him, the dispenser of wisdom and governor of their life together. Pinian did not play this role in his marriage to Melania, rather it was reverse” (Giardina 205). This power she held also was displayed in her practice of chastity, despite the fact that she wanted to remain a virgin before being forced into marriage, since Melania believed that being a virgin was the only way to conquer death (Giardina 193).
Chastity was a major theme throughout Melania’s life, which Laertius would use to empathize her way of life to the reader in the very beginning of most of his biographies. Melania only had two kids, which Pinian asked for so the inheritance could be passed down to them. However, Melania lost both of her children. The importance of motherhood was Melania’s top priority besides her religion. After the second child died, her way of life changed. Most of her family members died such as her parents, children, and husband. It was said that a large portion of her life was devoted to mourning. Giardina writes “And she was even more distressed by her husband’s death, for she kept vigil near his tomb and fasted for nearly four years. If we wish to understand Melania’s personality, however, it would be useful to dwell on the tears she did not shed”(Giardina 194). This is where Laertius would depict Melania being torn from her family through death and learning by turning death into something positive. Instead of portraying Melania as a weak person Laertius would display Melania as becoming stronger as an individual, and using mourning to force a change in her personality. Giardina also writes “When her daughter died at the age of twelve, Melania accepted it dry-eyed and saw it as an opportunity to accelerate her withdrawal from the world” (Giardina 194). Laertius’s style of describing Melania would be the third person with no name. By doing this, the perception of Melania’s pain is established amongst the readers as if the person was in Melania’s situation, which allows Melania to be better understood, supporting the fact that he could have written a better biography of her life.
The most important value Melania was known to have was her “radical charity”. Giving to others was something Melania did the most. She exchanges her wealth and power as an aristocrat for poverty. This was her philosophy of universal poverty, with which she wanted to spiritually and physically cleanse her body. Laertius would have described her in quotes and short statements of her beliefs on charity. For example, when Laertius is describing Pythagoras he writes “This was the excuse put forward; but his real reason for forbidding animal diet was to practice people and accustom them to simplicity of life, so that they could live on things easily procurable,”(Laertius 333). This similar way of depicting this philosopher’s life would be the same in describing Melania that she followed by example. No one else during her time gave everything they owned to the church and the poor. It was said that, “the estate owned by one of them alone provided them with an income sufficient to feed 29,000 people a year” (Giardina 195). She was able to use all her estate by selling them off and gaining money to give away to charity. Melania also went against the norm because politically, the Senate was alarmed with her giving property and money to charity. “It is surprising to learn, however, that the beneficiaries of Melania’s and Pinian’s charity also expressed perplexity and put up a firm resistance” (Giardina 197). This was Melania main focus in life, to choose poverty over wealth to become closer to God. Laertius would try to display this trait through actual events in her life where she gives up ownership property of her estates. For example, “One day after she and her husband had brought some ‘forty-five thousand pounds’ of gold into the house, to distribute to the poor and holy,” illustrates her benevolence (Giardina 196). This emphasis on charity would be the base to of the biography especially in the sense where giving away all your wealth was looked down upon. This was a paradox since giving to the poor was belittled compared to giving away money to gain political power.
Additionally, Melania was very intelligent. She was able to read the bible in Greek and Latin and transcribed the old and new testaments (Giardina 204). She was said to be “perfectly bilingual” (Giardina 204). This showed the devotion Melania had towards her religion, which was a critical part of her life. Melania’s true faith had helped her get through the turmoil of death in her family. She even took her faith to another level when she moved to the Holy land to be closer to God in the after life. This is where Melania was assumed to have died (Giardina 202).
Laertius’s way of giving meaning to a person’s death was by showing how they died for their conviction. In the case of Melania’s death, Laertius would say she was the first woman with extreme wealth to die alone in poverty by choice. However Laertius would not depict Melania like in Roman Women where “Her burial clothes were ‘worthy of her saintliness,’ for the various pieces of her burial clothes made up an extraordinary collage of relics: a tunic that had once belonged to a saint,” (Giardina 200). He would only use actual examples to help prove her death to be a saintly one, being very specific the whole time. By actually describing her passing, he would construct a mental image in the reader of how the scene actually looked. In Melania’s biography there was no actual specific way of death. Therefore, Laertius would try to create a scenario to provide to the audience a portrait of her death and help them perceive Melania to be deserving of being called a saint. For example, how Laertius describes Pythagoras death: “Pythagoras was caught as he tried to escape; he got as far as a certain field of beans, where he stopped, saying he would be captured rather than cross it, and be killed rather than prate about his doctrines;” (Laertius 355). This illustrates how Pythagoras died due to a belief he had about beans. This also would have been the same in depicting Melania’s death demise: a very specific and well-rounded account.
Melania was a woman of stature who gave her life to charity and shunned the typical way of life of a woman in this time. In the story of “Melania the Saint” and in the written style of Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius would have portrayed Melania as a more noteworthy saint. It is important to note that more specific details and facts about her life have been lost in the style in which her story was written. Especially because most of biographies in Lives of Eminent Philosophers recount more about the way of living of the individuals instead of what actually happens in their lives, this would have been in essential in trying to give meaning to Melania’s philosophy of life and humble style, which was not successfully depicted in Roman Women.